Communication IdeaVirus

Communication classes are an ideavirus*. So, if you can convince just one teacher to take the leap, and you materials and ideas are successful, the idea will spread to other teachers and you will have a brand new job.

*Ideavirus is a term coined by Seth Godin to describe ideas that are so influential and so remarkable that they spread quickly to others like a virus. Check out Seth Godin’s blog and free ebooks. He will change your life.

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16 Comments

  1. What is your ideal communication class? Is there a description like this on the site? I am curious as to what the perfect communication class looks like to you. What do you do, and how much time does it take?

    • We’re working hard to prepare the materials for class while simultaneously trying to spread the idea of communication classes to other English teachers. So I’m sorry I haven’t fully explained what our communication classes look like. Let me try to lay it all out.

      I think the easiest way to start is with 3-5 minutes of back-and-forth communication in as many classes as possible. It’s as simple as teaching students to use the phrase, “How about you?” and then selecting a few students in each class to practice a sentence target or review item in the context of a communication. This practice sets the foundation for a full communication class with students and with other teachers later on. This takes only about 3-5 minutes per class.

      The full communication class, which I think is ideal, started at my school when the 2nd and 3rd graders finished the textbook. It was incredibly successful with students and with my JTEs (we could do real team-teaching and powerful lesson planning together for the first time in some cases), so we are going to continue our communication classes when the new year starts. That means for every 3 regular English classes, the 4th will be a communication class, where students will apply what they just learned in a communication setting. Now that all junior high schools have the same system in place (i.e. 4 English classes in a week) I think every English teacher with a little initiative has the same opportunity to create their own communication revolution at their school.

      What do we do in our communication classes?

      We have 3 main goals in our program:

      1) Show students that using English can be incredibly fun and that speaking is a great way to level up their English skills

      2) Teach students easy-to-remember techniques for speaking English and improving their overall speaking proficiency

      3) Teaching students how to be cooler, more polite English speakers

      We’ve realized that communication is incredibly fun and interesting for everyone. So the main goal of every class is to get to communicating.

      We pick a conversation question for each class, and use worksheets and demonstrations to prepare students for their conversation.

      We leave plenty of room for students to fill in their own ideas.

      Then we arrange 15 to 20 minutes of talking time with their friends, peppered with advice and feedback.

      We sometimes end the class with demonstrations of student conversations. And we always finish with closing advice about how to apply and remember what they learned about having conversations on that day.

      Are you experimenting with conversation classes at your school? What is your situation at work? Do you think it’s possible to stage a communication revolution at your school?

  2. Thanks for your reply! I’m still not sure my original question has been answered though. This is what I was looking for:

    “We pick a conversation question for each class, and use worksheets and demonstrations to prepare students for their conversation.

    We leave plenty of room for students to fill in their own ideas.

    Then we arrange 15 to 20 minutes of talking time with their friends, peppered with advice and feedback.”

    But unfortunately, this is still not enough information for me to be able to approach a JTE with the idea. The 15 to 20 minutes of talking time section is especially vague. If I were to just tell my students to communicate with each other in English for 15 or 20 minutes, the results would be disastrous. I’m looking for more information with specific examples of how you were able to accomplish this class. What do you mean by worksheets? You say the conversation class is intended to review what they learned over the last three classes – does this mean you try to include the grammar points for that lesson in each communication class? What about when there are grammar points that don’t lend themselves to conversation? Do you encounter student pairs who are lower level and can’t manage conversation? What do you do to help these students? Do the troublemakers stay accountable and actually use the time to speak English? How do you get them excited enough to actually speak? I know you say that the conversation is the reward in and of itself, but when we do exercises like this, it isn’t enough for some students.

    I do have a “communication revolution” of a sort at my own school, I suppose. We start off by making our class warmup a 2 minute discussion time, kind of like you describe. I pick a topic, such as a TV show everyone knows, or even something more general like “school memories,” and everyone must talk with their partner for 2 minutes on that topic. (But some students don’t really participate and my JTE and I can’t watch all of them at once to make sure they do) We then have a system where the JTE continues normal classes, but sends out a couple students at a time to another room where I engage them in conversation for a certain amount of minutes, which gets longer and longer as the year progresses. At first we tie it in strictly to lessons, so students have the cushion of model sentences to fall back on in the book, but as they get more and more comfortable with speaking in English with me, we allow them to choose their own conversation topics beforehand.

    The 3rd years will be graduating the week after next, so recently we have been spending 3 periods per class for my conversation section. That way I get to have a good 5 minutes of talking with each student. They talk to me about their pets, dreams, hobbies, or even why they don’t like English!

    I like most of the aspects of my system, except for the fact that it takes too much time to finish, which is bad for me because I don’t have very much time at my JHS per week because of all the ES I go to. This is what intrigues me about your method, because it seems like it accomplishes the same goals without taking as much time. However, I still am not convinced that I could accomplish it with any kind of effectiveness with my students yet. I want more details!

    • Wow! Thank you for all of your questions and for challenging my explanations to go further. This is what I love most about building websites and starting discussions! It challenges me to think more about my ideas and how to explain them more effectively. It’s a great chance.

      How do we get students to talk for 15 minutes? And what are the worksheets like??

      I think it would be easier to answer this question by running you through a brief outline of our typical communication class. So, here I go:

      To start the first class we came into the room and told the 3rd year students, “Today is a very special day because we are going to have an English communication class. The big goal is to enjoy speaking English and to ‘Talk More!!'”

      Then we told them the topic (“Have you ever been to Hokkaido?”), checked how to answer this question (“Yes, I have.” / “No, I haven’t.”) and then did this demonstration:

      Watanabe-sensei: “Have you ever been to Hokkaido?”
      Elliott: “No, I haven’t”
      …….awkward silence…
      …….students laugh because it is so awkward…….

      Then we point out: “If you just say, “Yes, I have.” or “No, I haven’t.” then the conversation is finished!!

      So, let’s learn how to “Talk More!”

      Then we give them this worksheet, which was designed by Watanabe-sensei. Please have a look:

      https://altjteconnect.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/9-pg-75-have-you-ever-been-to-y-n.doc

      The worksheet is used to prepare the students for a 10 to 15 minute conversation with many different classmates.

      I should clarify that the students aren’t having 15 minute conversations with 1 student. They are having 2-3 minute conversations with 5-7 classmates for a total “Talk Time” of about 10-15 minutes.

      Anyway, as you can see on the worksheet, we give students a place to brainstorm ideas for what to say if the answer to the question, “Have you ever been to ___?” is “Yes” or “No”.

      We have the students brainstorm answers and give advice and feedback about the kinds of questions they want to ask. A lot of times, for instance, students are quick to throw out the question, “Why?”, which isn’t always the easiest question to answer. So we give them advice about what questions are good for facilitating the conversation. For example, “Was it fun?” “What did you see?” “Did you eat any delicious food?”

      With this preparation, students are then ready to start talking. They have the questions that they want to ask and a model conversation to follow. So we tell students to practice speaking with their partner, using the model dialogue at the bottom of the paper.

      Once they have practiced the dialogue a few times with those around them, we use a system called “sushi lines” to help arrange the maximum number of partners. Have you heard of it before?

      Click here to see a description:

      (PowerPoint Version): https://altjteconnect.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/sushi-lines5.ppt
      (PDF Version):
      https://altjteconnect.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/sushi-lines.pdf

      Sushi lines are a great way to set-up many conversation partners with students. It also gets them involved with the conversations because they have to face their peers (a factor which I think helps overcome the problem you described of students not being involved in the communication part).

      Also, since the students are busy talking and having conversations with each other, it frees both English teachers up to walk around the class, observe many students’ conversations, and jump in with feedback and advice.

      This example lesson is the basic framework we use for 3rd graders. We simply change the topic, the goals, advice and feedback for each class. But the structure is essentially the same: Introduce, prepare, practice, sushi lines, conversation, feedback.

      The reason why I think our communication class works is because everyone involved in the class — from the JTE to me to the students — we all understand that it is a communication class. We all have the same goals, too: They are basically to enjoy speaking English and to learn how to be better conversationalists. I feel very lucky because 2 months ago, after a few conversations about having a communication class, my JTE actually approached me and said, “Hey, I’m thinking we should try to start a communication class. Can you prepare some ideas and materials and show me how we can do it?” Part of this is luck, but I think it also has to do with the changing circumstances in English education in Japan, and the relationships and reputation I built at work. This is why I’m convinced anyone with initiative can do it.

      Does that answer your questions?

      I want to hear more about your program so that we can adopt some of your best practices. But I have to run to class now. I look forward to your next response. Talking about this is FUN!!!

      Cheers,

      Elliott

      • I’m back from a free period, so I have some more time to discuss! Yay!

        About the “Reviewing 3 classes”, I didn’t mean we necessarily review the material from the last 3 classes. I mean that our system is 3 classes of grammar and textbook, 1 class communication. For the last 2 months of communication classes, our topics have been all review. The questions we chose for 3rd graders are:

        1. “Have you ever been to ____?”
        2. “Do you know _____?”
        3. “How do I make a good impression?” (We told them a lot about posture and handshakes, eye contact, and just generally how to do a good self-introduction when meeting new English-speaking friends.)
        4. “What did you do last weekend?”
        5. “What are you going to do this weekend?”

        Except for topic number 3, we used the same general structure I described above with a modified worksheet and different advice.

        BUT, in trying to link the classes better to the regular curriculum, my JTEs and I are planning on linking the conversation class to what is going on in the textbook. This is the really great potential that we see for the communication classes. Right now we are planning the Talk More! English communication curriculum for next year so that the conversation topic for a particular week will actually be what students just covered in the textbook. So our communication classes won’t just be a series of disconnected conversation classes. The classes will actually be a place to practice using some of the phrases and sentence patterns they learned in the regular class. This time, however, it is in a conversation setting.

        We’ve found that when students actually practice using/saying/speaking the words and phrases they learn, they actually learn them better. It shouldn’t be a revolution, but it is.

      • I do have a “communication revolution” of a sort at my own school, I suppose. We start off by making our class warmup a 2 minute discussion time, kind of like you describe. I pick a topic, such as a TV show everyone knows, or even something more general like “school memories,” and everyone must talk with their partner for 2 minutes on that topic. (But some students don’t really participate and my JTE and I can’t watch all of them at once to make sure they do) We then have a system where the JTE continues normal classes, but sends out a couple students at a time to another room where I engage them in conversation for a certain amount of minutes, which gets longer and longer as the year progresses. At first we tie it in strictly to lessons, so students have the cushion of model sentences to fall back on in the book, but as they get more and more comfortable with speaking in English with me, we allow them to choose their own conversation topics beforehand.

        These are some really great ideas. I do believe you are starting a communication revolution at your school as well. I imagine the 2 minute discussion time is a really interesting activity to try for some students. It also sets up a good habit of them feeling comfortable talking with other Japanese people in English. I’ve heard that the English program in the Philippines is really successful in part because they focus on getting students to speak English with each other — that way they are forming potential life-long language partners when a native speaker isn’t around.

        You might be able to overcome the problem of the disinterested students, if you use a system like sushi lines, like I link to above. The first time it will add some additional time to the class. But at my school, now that the students understand the system, we can have 5 minute sushi line sessions by just saying “Make sushi lines!” Some of the lack of participation I’ve seen in students at my schools has to do with them feeling like they can get away with being unaccountable. But, put them in front of 5 of their classmates when everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing, and their calculation changes!!

        I think the second part of your procedure is also awesome! I’d like to try it at my school. I would so much rather get a chance to sit down one-on-one with some students and try to talk with them than almost anything else. It seems like it is not only a good time to bond and teach English — but also to breakthrough to some kids and change their entire attitude about English.

        How do your conversations usually go? Do you find yourself leading them 100% What have you done to encourage more 2-way communication?

  3. Oops, I didn’t notice that you had posted all these great comments until just now! haha

    I have an elementary school today, so I will answer your questions after I finish.

    • Thanks for all of your information, now I have a much better idea of what you mean when you say ‘communication classes,’ and it gives me a lot of ideas to work with next year as well!

      Just as you mentioned in your post, my 3rd graders were not always excellent conversation leaders, and I had to guide the conversation myself. In fact, I’m pretty convinced that Junior Highschool students are in general not genius conversationalists, in any language, in any country.

      We gradually worked up to the way it is now. First, we would just do reading quizzes, where they read a passage from the textbook to me, and I grade their pronunciation and reading ability. Then, we have conversation for 2 or 3 minutes where they present to me something they wrote and I guide the conversation with questions relating to whatever it was they said. Lastly, we have the ‘draw a topic from the bag’ interview where we talk for 3 to 5 minutes, and THEY must guide the conversation. (we made a rule) Before hand, we give them plenty of examples between me and the JTE, and give them some time to think about what they would say besides “I like XX, how about you?”

      Of course, most conversations still start with “I like XX, how about you?” But then we usually move into “have you ever” or “why do you think XX” or “what do you, where do you, when do you.” They also pepper it with their own comments – “I think that…” which of course, I always follow up with “why?” We recently asked the students to think of the topics they wanted to put in the bags – if I recall correctly, they were “Sports, Seasons, School Life/Memories, Dreams, Animals, Food, Anime/Manga, English, Countries/Culture, Music, Family” I had great conversations in every topic. At first, the students feel like they can only talk about a topic they know and like, like sports. But realistically, there is often MORE to talk about when they don’t know about the subject, because it lends itself to asking more questions. For culture, they will ask me what is “American Culture.” I then get to ask them to give me and example of “Japanese Culture.” For English, the students will ask me my favorite English word, and then I ask them their favorite Japanese word. They bust out some 四字熟語, and then I ask them what it means – that is my favorite part – they have to try to explain the meaning to me, and when I finally get it, they are super happy that they could communicate it to me. They are also happy when they can recommend a restaurant, or musician, or talk about their dad’s work, etc etc.

      Like I said, it isn’t instantly easy for them to do this exercise. So we lead up to it by less threatening interviews, then we do one run through where they do it in a pair, then finally we do it one on one. I also make sure there are three or four pairs/people waiting in the wings in the same classroom, so they can observe their friends and not be so nervous when it finally comes around to their turn. I keep the atmosphere casual by asking for conformation from the people waiting sometimes.(“Does his dad really own that soba shop???? OMG!”)

      One thing I have noticed, however, is that the JTE really has to be on board for this to work out. The 3rd year class that I don’t go to as often because the teacher doesn’t request for me as often can’t even come close to doing this exercise (of course there are a couple kids who are great at it, but they are the minority in this class). It is all about the teacher valuing conversation as a tool for furthering English learning, and helping you grow the kids to the right point. In my other two 3rd year classes, there was not a single kid that I couldn’t have at least a basic conversation with. I’m super proud of them… *sniff*

      • There are so many great things about your approach to introducing this communication component to the students. I want to try out your system at my school, so I have some questions for you at the bottom of this reply. But first, I’d like to tell you the things I like about your idea. They are:

        1) It is step-by-step and each part gets students more invested in the project and the conversation until ultimately THEY are leading the conversation.

        2) Students submitted THEIR ideas to the “conversation bag”. I think this is crucial in getting them interested and invested in the project. Finding topics that students are genuinely interested in can be a challenge. But you went straight to the source and asked them. Great idea!!

        3) Your approach lends itself to building self-directed study and curiosity in students. As you say, “At first, the students feel like they can only talk about a topic they know and like, like sports. But realistically, there is often MORE to talk about when they don’t know about the subject, because it lends itself to asking more questions….” This is teaching students so many great things about learning a foreign language I don’t even know where to begin. You are showing students that they can discover new things through a foreign language (like about American culture.) And you’re showing them that they can follow their interests and learn vocabulary specific to those areas. *Internet high-five!*

        4) You are showing them that they can communicate their own ideas in a foreign language, and make an impact as when they recommend music, restaurants or movies to you.

        As refreshing and interesting as our communication classes at my school are, ultimately I have felt a little unsatisfied because we are still operating in a class of 30+ students. Even when I get involved in the sushi lines, there isn’t enough time to get invested in a individual conversation like you are capable of doing at your school. So, I would seriously like to try out your idea – perhaps starting as early as next month.

        So some questions.

        -Do you have a name for this idea? Something catchy perhaps?
        -How did it start for you? Did you approach the JTE with the idea or vice versa?
        -Do you have some materials you can send me to help me prepare?

        Cheers,

        Elliott

      • “One thing I have noticed, however, is that the JTE really has to be on board for this to work out. The 3rd year class that I don’t go to as often because the teacher doesn’t request for me as often can’t even come close to doing this exercise (of course there are a couple kids who are great at it, but they are the minority in this class). It is all about the teacher valuing conversation as a tool for furthering English learning, and helping you grow the kids to the right point. In my other two 3rd year classes, there was not a single kid that I couldn’t have at least a basic conversation with. I’m super proud of them… *sniff*”

        I couldn’t agree with you more. This is exactly the same for me. Without the JTE and the ALT on the same page, communication classes are impossible. That’s why building relationships is so important. We got to spread the word about this…

      • No name – haven’t really thought about it yet. We just call it “Topic Interviews” around the office – it’s an idea that has just evolved naturally over time, mostly thanks to my really awesome JTE, who first began the reading tests as chapter reviews last year.

        No materials set in stone yet, but I could probably whip up a little step by step explanation. I’m not very good at making things look pretty or thinking of catchy names like you are, though.

        Also, I should mention that my JTE and I are still both unsatisfied with our process as it stands now, mainly because it takes lots of time. It would be so awesome if we could do one round every week, but I can’t do every 3rd year class in just the 2 or 3 days that I am here every week. It usually takes at least 2 periods to finish one classroom.

        • If you whipped up that explanation I could add some graphics and fonts to make it look nice.

          Have you tried doing a lottery for who gets to do the interview? If you did it that way you could focus your time on 10 to 15 students in a class and then use the extra time to make it to the other classes. Also, if you spin it right, you could turn the lottery into a reward (i.e. “Oh, these are the lucky students that will get a chance to improve their communication skills this week” — or something like that).

          Do the students receive a grade for their interview? Or is the focus simply on having a successful conversation?

          • They are all graded. I grade on several different points for each type of interview, and I make sure that I explain to the students how I will be grading them before we do it. This last interview my grading points were “English” “Fluency” “Awesomeness” where awesomeness is how many interesting comments and questions they can think of, fluency is how they can keep the conversation going without grinding to 60 seconds of silent pondering, and “English” being whether they could use more difficult grammar than just “I like.”

            Thanks for your offer! I may whip something up in the near future – I’m thinking about putting something in stone for next year’s curriculum like yourself, so I will do it after I talk with the English teachers a little.

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